Today is February 4, 2016 and I am writing this in Ghent, Belgium, about twenty kilometers from Lokeren where my partner Hilde De Roover grew up. When I arrived last night after the usual ordeal of airplanes and trains, I walked to the Sphinx Theater and watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens with subtitles in Dutch and French. I am now reflecting upon both the new film and the original Star Wars because last night in my jet-lag they felt like the same movie, an illustration of the complicated relationship between films and memory.
I had just turned fourteen in 1977 before the first Star Wars film was released and was about to participate in a pop-cultural hero’s journey. My Tatooine was Amery, a small dairy farming town in western Wisconsin. This village of two thousand people had one movie theater located centrally on the main street. My father loved movies and often took my brothers and me with him to the Amery Theater.
During the early 1970’s I was preoccupied with Toho Studio monster films, Kaiju, which my friends and I watched on television: Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, Mothra and, naturally, Godzilla. In early April of 1972, I read in the local newspaper that Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster would be playing on my birthday at the Amery Theater. I asked my father if he would drive my friends and me to see Godzilla. He agreed and on the afternoon of Saturday, April 29, 1972 a half-dozen boys crowded into our wood-paneled station wagon and drove downtown.
The pop-psychedelic playfulness of the late 1960’s that had transformed the style of genre films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or The Thomas Crown Affair had also infected the Godzilla franchise. When I saw the film again recently I smiled, imagining my father in the Amery Theater on his son’s ninth birthday trying to make sense of Godzilla subjected to the visual mannerisms of Head. My father had been born into the Great Depression in North Dakota, grew up poor and practical, served in the army, worked his way through college and medical school and now lived as a small-town doctor in Amery; his experience had not prepared him for psychedelic Kaiju.
Occasionally, my brothers and I would ride an hour with our father to the Maplewood Mall Multiplex on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota. Among the films I recall seeing at the mall were: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, the series of Benji movies, Herbie Rides Again, Bugsy Malone and Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films. During the late spring of 1977 a neighbor boy described a movie called Stars Wars that he’d seen on a similar visit to Minneapolis with his parents. It was amazing and he wanted to see it again as soon as possible. He waved a stick around, making a buzzing sound to demonstrate the idea of a lightsaber. In addition to this enthusiastic word of mouth, ads appeared constantly on television and the soundtrack played on the radio in Moog synthesizer and disco variations. In retrospect, I picture Star Wars during the summer of 1977 as the equivalent of The Beatles in 1964; it overwhelmed the collective pop sensibility and was inescapable.
My brothers and I convinced my dad to drive us to the Maplewood Mall to see Star Wars. Arriving at the theater, we were surprised to learn that the next screening was sold out. I don’t think we were even aware that a movie could sell out. We bought tickets for the following show and went into the shopping mall to pass time. When we later filed slowly into the theater with the crowd, every seat ultimately occupied, the atmosphere was charged with a contagious eagerness that I’d never felt in a cinema before. Star Wars wasn’t just another movie; it was a social event.
The pre-movie, abstract oil disc projection eventually faded away and the crowd murmured in anticipation. After the United Artist’s theater chain trailer explained where we must dispose of our trash and where to exit in the event of a fire, the opening title appeared, accompanied by the declamatory John William’s theme. The audience, as if constraints had been suddenly removed, applauded and cheered. I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck as the now-famous text scroll began. People whispered to each other around us and I understood that many in the audience had seen the film before.
The first passage of an Imperial Star Destroyer against a background planet stunned me. Part of Star Wars initial appeal lay in a new standard of detail for practical special effects; the suspension of disbelief was immediate and absolute. The audience was then swept collectively through Luke Skywalker’s journey to the moment of catharsis that anyone of my generation remembers vividly: the destruction of the Death Star. “Stay on Target!” I grabbed my younger brother’s arm. “Stay on Target!!” He was shaking with anxiety. “Use the Force Luke . . . let go.” The crowd stood together, arms in the air, bound in an involuntary expression of tension and joy. I glanced up at my dad and he was smiling broadly. He turned to me and slapped my hand in celebration. We did it. We had all done it together. It was the first ‘rock concert’ moment that I experienced at the movies.
During the next six months, I saw Star Wars seven more times.
George Lucas has acknowledged the 1930’s Buck Rogers serial as a model for his space epic, but he focused this raw material with the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” abstracting the hero's journey pattern from the pulp action story. Due to the immense financial and cultural impact of Star Wars, this functional monomyth has provided subsequent, mega-budget studio films (The Force Awakens included) with a dependable means of drawing emotional identification from an audience.
At the story’s beginning, the protagonist finds himself in inauspicious circumstances with little awareness of his potential. Through the intervention of a mentor figure, the chosen unwittingly embarks upon the path to realize his potential and to serve his kind, to become soldier, leader, destroyer of the Death Star, messiah of his race. I use only the masculine pronoun in this description because, until recently, the chosen was almost always male: Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, Neo in his apartment in The Matrix, paraplegic Jake Sully in Avatar or Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the mainstream entertainment of my early adult life, middle-aged men authored this cinematic hero’s journey specifically for the aspirations of young men (and perhaps for their own consolation as well).
In Avatar, James Cameron created a self-conscious metaphor for the viewer's relationship to the protagonist: as Jake is to his alien avatar, so we are to Jake. Limited by the banality of life, we project our most elevated dreams into these vessels and they amplify our desire, enabling us to participate vicariously in greatness and nobility, youth and vitality. Cameron is keenly aware of movies as a tool of emotional manipulation. The exchange that we enact with movies as wish-fulfillment is simple: we pay our ticket price to experience a version of life as we hope it could be. We may be living anonymously, our potential unrecognized in forlorn places like Amery, Wisconsin, but we possess special capacities that will eventually be revealed.
Forty years after my first viewing of Star Wars, I’m in Ghent, jet-lagged and trying to keep myself awake at the Sphinx Theater with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In my personal journey, I’ve escaped my own rural Tatooine and landed on the exotic planet of Belgium. When R2D2 first appeared in the film, a boy of about eight turned to his father and exclaimed, “R2! Hij is terug!” (He’s back!) I was startled that a boy who could potentially be my grandson was also versed in the same Star Wars mythology that had captivated me in 1977. Despite the notably diverse casting as regards race and gender, which encourages a broader contemporary audience to project themselves into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, I began to think of The Force Awakens as a repertory staging of the original Star Wars. The same story and character mechanisms that had manipulated me as a fourteen-year-old now began to work their calculated magic. I recalled the excitement of that first viewing at the Maplewood Mall. I was becoming that naively enthusiastic teenager projecting himself into his onscreen surrogate Luke Skywalker again, until . . . Mark Hamill appeared at the end of the movie.
There are moments watching films, many of them accidental, in which the actuality of the props, actors, locations or suggestions of off-camera space disrupt the suspension of disbelief. I remember, for instance, noticing the brief appearance of a fly on the wall behind a character’s head in Pudovkin’s Mother. Suddenly distracted from the fictional story, the documentary reality of a group of people in 1926 pretending to be other people in front of a camera captured my attention. Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, preoccupied with the ontology of photography and cinema, makes a similar observation in this 1960 book “Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality”:
In his Hamlet Laurence Olivier has the cast move about in a studio-built, conspicuously stagy Elsinore, whose labyrinthine architecture seems calculated to reflect Hamlet's unfathomable being. Shut off from our real-life environment, this bizarre structure would spread over the whole of the film were it not for a small, otherwise insignificant scene in which the real ocean outside that dream orbit is shown. But no sooner does the photographed ocean appear than the spectator experiences something like a shock. He cannot help recognizing that this little scene is an outright intrusion; that it abruptly introduces an element incompatible with the rest of the imagery. How he then reacts to it depends upon his sensibilities.
In my 'fly on the wall' story, my sensibilities recognized that an arbitrary moment in the cast’s life had been preserved, removed from the flow of time and then repeated decades later as a representation on a movie theater screen. Andre Bazin, who along with Kracauer influenced the realist Cinema Verite movement, famously suggested that photography “embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” (Cut to the “ageless animals” of the natural history museum scene in Chris Marker's La Jetee.) A contradictory awareness of both preservation and passing can surface without warning in any movie. Lassie romps eternally through the Lassie films, long after all of the dogs that played Lassie onscreen have died; the Lassie that we watch onscreen is a form of taxidermy, a repetition of one dog’s life frozen in that moment. At the documentary level of photographic capture, a movie inherently conveys an uneasy mingling of life and death, of presence and loss.
The makers of The Force Awakens were not intentionally creating my confusion when Mark Hamill turned to the camera at the film’s end. But the bubble of my nostalgic reverie burst, nonetheless, due to uniquely subjective circumstances: jet-lag amplifying my memories of 1977. Because I was experiencing the Star Wars of 2016 as a repertory performance of the original, Rey was playing the Luke Skywalker role. The visual confrontation of Lukes at the conclusion ambushed me with a ‘fly on the wall’ moment. Rey (the actress Daisy Ridley) was the vital, young, as yet untested Luke Skywalker with all of her adventures before her; Mark Hamill in 1977. She sought the original Luke Skywalker and found him in what appeared to be an Irish coastal landscape playing a distant planet. Within the logic of the Star Wars mythology, Luke has become Obi Wan Kenobi; he will now serve as mentor to another young Jedi acolyte. He turned to reveal his face to the camera, the make-believe evaporated for me and he was shockingly . . . Mark Hamill the man, old, degraded, physically diminished and frail with the better part of his life behind him.
Sitting in the Sphinx Cinema on Feb. 3, 2016, my particular sensibilities had revealed a spontaneous truth, subsidiary to and yet more profound than the story the film was telling. Mark Hamill was suddenly Dennis Hopper on the pool table taking photos of himself in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend or John Cassavetes pouring himself a drink in Love Streams. The penetration of personal biography into the fictional space turned the sci-fi blockbuster into small-scale 70's naturalism, subverting the intentions of the filmmakers. To see Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, wrinkled and slightly hunched with age earlier in The Force Awakens introduced the first twinge of confusion that fully materialized in Mark Hamill’s cameo at the end. My memories engaged in eccentric dialogue with the reality of the film’s production. For someone who had dedicated himself whole-heartedly to Star Wars at age fourteen and had longed to be Luke Skywalker, witnessing this pathetically human juxtaposition of the two Luke Skywalkers forty years apart in age emphasized my mortality. I may have successfully made the journey to the planet Belgium, but The Force was weakened within me. The physical strip of film that was my life uncoiled into the starry background. I was aging and would die, a truth deeper and more fundamental than the hero’s journey. Time will inevitably win the battle.